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Tag Archives: mass exhibitionism

This essay, like the one I posted last month on faux-vintage photography, is me hashing out ideas as part of my larger dissertation project on self-documentation and social media. Part II will argue that the media also overstate how public we have become, sensationalizing the issue to the point that the stigma associated with online imperfections erodes more slowly. It is no stretch to claim that we have become more public with social media. By “public” I mean that we are posting (1) more pieces information about ourselves online in (2) new ways (see the Zuckerberg Law of Information sharing), and are doing so more (3) honestly than ever before. We are connected to the web more often, especially given the rise of smart phones, and new layers of information are being invented, such as “checking in” geographically. And gone are the days when you could be anyone you want to be online; today we know that online activities are augmented by the physical world. People are mostly using their real names on Facebook and nearly everything one does there has everything to do with the offline world.

But we are not as public as this suggests. We need a balance to this so-called triumph of publicity and death of anonymity (as the New York Times and Zygmunt Bauman recently declared). “Publicity” on social media needs to be understood fundamentally as an act rife also with its conceptual opposite: creativity and concealment. And I am not talking just about those who use false identities on blogs (see Amina) and pseudonyms on Facebook, those with super-strict privacy settings or those who only post a selective part of their multiple identities (though, I am talking about these folks, too).  My point applies to even the biggest oversharers who intimately document their lives in granular detail.

I’ll describe below how each instance of sharing online is done so creatively instead of as simple truth-telling, but will start first by discussing how each new piece of information effectively conceals as much as it reveals. Read More »

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The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity

The premise of the article is that what is posted online can potentially live on forever. True, but the reality is that the vast majority of digital content we create will be seen by virtually no one. Sometimes I think these worries stem from a vain fantasy that everything we type will reach the eyes of the whole world for all time. Sorry, but your YouTube video probably isn’t going viral and few people will likely read this post.

What interests me about digital content is that it is on the one hand potentially immortal and on the other exceedingly ephemeral. In fact, it is precisely digital content’s immortality that guarantees the very flood of data that makes any one bit exceedingly ephemeral, washed away in the deluge of user-generated banality. Jean Baudrillard taught us that too much knowledge is actually no knowledge at all because the information becomes unusable in its abundance. This is what millions of people tweeting away is: an inundation of data, most of which will never be read by many and will probably be of little consequence [edit for clarification: I like Twitter].

If anything, one problem with social networking applications like Facebook or Twitter is that they do a poor job of archiving and making searchable specific past content. A quick glace on Facebook reveals that I cannot search my friend’s history of status updates. Looking at my Twitter stream, I cannot even find my oldest tweets. My digital content may live forever, but it does so in relative obscurity.

2-Flaws are Forgivable, Perfection is Not

The article draws from a quote about how the immortality of digital content…

“…will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them” […] “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

I disagree. As we increasingly live our lives online, always index-able, it should be expected that many of us will have some digital dirt on our hands. Instead of this idea that we won’t be able to forgive each other for not being perfect, new realities will change our expectations. I suspect being an imperfect human being will be just as forgivable as it always has.

In fact, it very well might be the too-perfect profile that is unforgivable. As any politician knows, you cannot look too clean and sterile; else you come off as phony. A too-polished and perfect profile is increasingly a sign that you are not living with technology and making it part of your life -and thus seem a bit technologically illiterate. The overly-manicured profile screams that you are not out there using social media tools to their full potential.

In conclusion, use scare-tactic articles like the one being commented on here to remind you that what you say indeed might come back to haunt you. But do not go overboard worrying and cleaning your digital presence. Yes, riding your bike or eating chicken might get you killed (potholes and salmonella scare me more than Googling my name), but we are willing to take these risks because they are exceedingly small. Be smart, don’t post about your boss, but, in any case, the vast majority of people posting status updates about their job today will not get fired tomorrow. ~nathan

Some were surprised to learn that young Facebook users -the folks who are most implicated in the game of “mass exhibitionism” and living in public- are also the ones who are most involved with privacy online. Some have described this as contradictory and counter-intuitive – are kids exhibitionists or not?

The findings are not contradictory and the larger point goes well beyond kids, but indicates a general rule of privacy and publicity: the degree to which one is involved in the game of living in public is the degree to which one is concerned with both revealing and concealing.

facebook as fandance: a game of reveal and conceal

Living in public was once reserved for celebrities of one sort or another. Their publicity also implied close attention paid to privacy (images of Michael Jackson hiding himself in various ways spring to mind). Today, living in public has been democratized. Many of us use Facebook and other technologies to document our selves, ideas, travels, friendships and so on. Many of our friends and peers are doing the same. As all of this is woven into everyday life, a new set of cultural norms emerge.

And those most involved with social media are trying to navigate these norms as best as they can. In short, they want their digital documentation to be successful. Their peers are watching. As they have to learn how to reveal successfully, it follows that they are also very interested in when not reveal, or when to conceal altogether. Of course the exhibitionists are the most concerned with privacy.

Privacy and publicity imply each other, and are increasingly interwoven and blurred together in everyday life. My favorite metaphore for this is borrowed from social media researcher Marc Smith who describes this as a fandance; a game of reveal and conceal.

All of this comes on the heels of the major privacy fiasco Facebook is currently weathering. While I am typically hard on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he seems to get it. As quoted in the recent Time magazine cover story:

What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.

Here, he’s dead-on. The people that want to live in public also want to control their publicity. Unfortunately, Facebook’s record has fallen pathetically short in living up to Zuckerberg’s rhetoric. ~nathanjurgenson.com

Today, while speaking to WYPR (Baltimore’s NPR affiliate) about the latest iteration of Facebook privacy concerns, I brought up the idea of not using your real name on Facebook -that is, having a “Fakebook.”

We live within a cultural dynamic that both encourages us to live in public and punishes us for doing the same. Teens, who are more involved with their Facebook privacy than adults, have reacted by using fake names on Facebook so they have less to worry about when applying for colleges. Creating a “Fakebook” allows individuals to use their real Facebook in one way, their Fakebook in another, all while avoiding many of the consequences of living in public.

To be clear, not using one’s real name is against Facebook’s policies (see section 4.1), and the term “Fakebook” is usually reserved for creepy stalkers or malcontents. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg states that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” He is frighteningly out of touch with the many valid reasons why users might want to keep certain things private (hint: it often has to do with social inequalities, power and vulnerability).

So forget all of that. You can create a Fakebook and use it for good.

  • Step one: Create or modify your real Facebook page. Make sure it does not contain any information you wouldn’t want the whole world to see. You do not even have to accept friend requests, instead directing those you want to friend over to your Fakebook name using the site’s email system.
  • Step two: Use your Fakebook (almost) any way you want. If you want to be extra careful, do not create any obvious connections between your Fakebook and your real name.

Aside from the privacy gains, there is a political motive, too. In response to Facebook profiting off our increasingly private data, one may want to engage in some “database vandalism.” The idea is that Facebook makes money because their database is filled with so much ‘true’ information. Maybe you have a problem with this (granted, many do not). Maybe you are just upset that Facebook has a history of making things you set private as public behind a maze of privacy settings. If so, you can gum up the Facebook database by inputting lots of false information.

Your Fakebook will save you a headache the next time Facebook pulls the privacy rug out from under its users (as it has done over and over again) while simultaneously making a statement against the corporate ownership of our personal data. ~nathanjurgenson.com

publicly

Facebook continuously rolls back user privacy, the policy itself is increasingly convoluted, and technical hiccups have revealed users’ information – so, shouldn’t we be experiencing Facebook fatigue by now? (as PJ Rey predicted)

Sure, techno-pundits are crying foul, but Facebook users are not leaving the service in large numbers, and other technologies of narcissism -such as Formspring– continue to march along. Why?

While we know well how to become scared about decreasing privacy -and rightly so- we have only begun to articulate what increasing publicity means. I have described the will to document ourselves across the web as a new sort of “mass exhibitionism.” And while we all care deeply about privacy, this cultural impulse to live in public often wins out (often to the detriment of those most vulnerable).

Take, for example, the most recent social networking phenom, Formspring, where users answer questions about themselves that are often asked anonymously. The site has taken a dark turn. Rampant with verbal attacks, the site has already been connected to a suicide. Danah boyd often uses her expertise to dispel social media fear-mongering, so it says something when she describes the site this way:

“While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.”

She goes on to ask,

“[w]hat is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?”

I believe the answer to this question is that mass exhibitionism is simply a more powerful cultural force than even preserving oneself from cyber-attacks. Why?

The logic is just the same as what advertisers have long since come to terms with: bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

To document oneself online is to exist. We create ourselves as product becuase what is worse than being made fun of is to not exist to begin with. Bad mass exhibitionism has come to seem better than no exhibitionism at all. ~nathanjurgenson.com

by nathan jurgenson

Users logged into Facebook this week to find various messages from the company telling them of changes in the way they will share their information. While the company frames all of this as putting users in “control” of their own data, it strikes me that this is more about empowering the company than the users. Users are given more opportunity to share more information with more people, creating more of the data that Facebook profits from.

Whether you care if Facebook profits from all of this or not, it is important to identify the rhetorical strategy: to accumulate more data that Facebook ultimately controls and owns by telling its users that they are increasingly in control.

As CEO Mark Zuckerberg states that you have more control of your data, he is simultaneously allowing you to share more by changing the defaults that users rarely deviate from. Now more information such as as your name, profile picture, gender, networks, friend list, and any pages you are a fan of are publicly available to anyone on the Internet rather than just with your friends. See: Facebook’s Privacy Upgrade Recommends I Be Less Private. Further, Zuckerberg is not mentioning that he still owns this data and is poised to profit from it.

Unlike other posts on this topic, this is not an argument that Facebook dupes us into sharing too much. The mass exhibitionism and voyeurism in our current moment runs much too deep –often contrary to capitalist goals. Instead, one should simply read Facebook’s insidious message of “empowerment” with a skeptical eye.

Finally, we can describe this strategy as an outcome of the new more weightless prosumer capitalism. Prosumer because we simultaneously consume and produce nearly all of the content on Facebook. Weightless (as I’ve previously argued for, using Bauman’s terms) because we-the-laborers are unpaid and are given the product for free. Thus, capitalism is hardly distinguishable as such, increasingly hidden by the rhetoric of user-empowerment. Facebook is letting our mass exhibitionism spread, lubricating social interactions as well as they can, and cashing in on the data we supposedly “control”. ~nathan

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